By Brian Tumulty
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The web site New York created to help uninsured state residents find coverage under the Affordable Care Act is operating without significant problems, in contrast to the trouble-plagued federal web site serving 36 other states.
The New York web site allows applicants to enroll in 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the complexity of their personal finances and immigration status, according to Elisabeth Benjamin of the Community Service Society of New York.
"The web site was admittedly glitchy early on, but every weekend they take it down, they kind of tweak it and it's getting better and better,'' said Benjamin, who has handled some enrollments herself.
The New York site recorded 30 million hits during its first week. State officials quickly moved to increase its capacity.
Benjamin's organization is working with 38 community groups in 61 of the state's 62 counties. The groups, including more than a dozen chambers of commerce, are serving as "navigators'' helping uninsured New Yorkers sign up through the health exchange.
"We are experiencing an incredible pent-up demand for affordable health insurance,'' Benjamin said. "If ever there was a state for Obamacare to work, it was New York, because we had extremely high prices in the individual market of over $1,000 per person per month and no one could afford it.''
Prices on the New York health exchange are as much as 50 percent less than current market prices for individual coverage. A big reason is that modest-income individuals - those earning up to $45,960 and families of four making up to $94,200 - are eligible for federal tax credits to help reduce the monthly premium.
Private-sector contractors hired to design and operate the problem-plagued federal web site testified at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Thursday that they can't predict the date it will become fully functional.
"We are seeing improvements day over day,'' said Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, the lead federal contractor.
Campbell and other contractors said the federal web site should be operational by the Dec. 15 deadline to enroll in coverage that starts Jan. 1.
House Republicans who called the hearing highlighted the deficiencies in planning for the Oct. 1 launch of the federal web site, but Democrats such as Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey pointed out that the federal site was overburdened because many Republican governors chose not to operate their own state health insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act.
"I think in New York it's a good example of what's possible when the federal government has a willing and enthusiastic partner,'' Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of the Bronx said at the hearing. He noted that the state has overcome "some technical and capacity-related issues'' since launching its web site Oct. 1.
"As of Oct. 23, 174,000 New Yorkers have completed their application,'' Engel said. "And New York continues to make improvements to its exchange web site, including quadrupling its processing capacity, and by the end of the week individuals should be able to look up coverage based on various providers and doctors.''
Among those 174,000 applicants, 37,030 have fully enrolled for coverage starting Jan. 1, with 23,717 eligible for Medicaid because of their low income and 13,313 enrolled in private health plans.
States operating their own health insurance exchanges have the ability to customize them to match local needs, said Sarah Dash, a research fellow at Georgetown University's Center on Health Insurance Reforms.
Donna Frescatore, executive director of the NY State of Health, the name of the health exchange website, said she would give the state an "A'' on the rollout of its health insurance marketplace.
"We don't think there are any major problems,'' she said in an interview, indicating that minor changes have been made to the web site, including moving the location of the "submit" button and enlarging some text.
And unlike the federal web site, there has been no delay in allowing small businesses to sign up to cover their employees. Frescatore said New York offers two options for small-business owners - one based on covering a percentage of the insurance plan's cost and another where the employer pays a lump sum per employee.